Out of the loop

Lacking legislative clout, N.C. black lawmakers turn to advocacy

Herbert L. White | 4/24/2013, 4:52 p.m.
Black lawmakers in N.C. gain in numbers, turn to advocacy
N.C. Rep. Kelly Alexander (right) talks to Verida Curry at a legislative forum April 21 at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte. A record number of African Americans in the N.C. General Assembly is serving during the 2013 legislative session as a result of redistricting that solidified Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Photo by Paul Williams, III

Never have North Carolina’s black lawmakers been so plentiful and powerless.

A record number of African Americans – 31 – are in the General Assembly, a byproduct of redistricting by the Republican majority in 2011. But while their numbers have grown, their Democratic Party caucus has shrunk as Republican-leaning districts squeezed out white Democrats who exercised near-total control of state government from 1898 to 2010.

"We are in large numbers by design due to the redistricting process," said N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat and chairman of Mecklenburg County’s legislative delegation. "The Republican Party intentionally created these majority-minority districts not because they had an eye toward diversity, they wanted to put us in districts that would advantage African Americans but disadvantage white Democrats who would need black voters to be successful."

The fates of black and Republican lawmakers have risen together over the last 30 years. In 1984, a lawsuit forced the General Assembly to accept single-member legislative districts where black voters were in the majority, boosting the number of African American and Republican representatives. In 1983, there were 12 black lawmakers and 24 Republicans. Two years later, there were 16 and 50.

In 1989, blacks and Republicans joined forces to craft a bill that lowered the threshold for avoiding primary runoffs to 40 percent, which helped African American candidates.

But with the most recent redistricting, Republicans expanded their control of the General Assembly through gerrymandered districts while packing black voters into solidly-Democratic strongholds. The results have been predictable, said Ran Coble, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.

"That puts African Americans in a minority where Republicans don’t need their votes in public policy issues," he said. "On the other hand, the fates of African Americans and Republicans are tied together in redistricting because in order to create more Republican districts they created more majority-minority districts as well."

With the spike in numbers, black lawmakers have raised their profile in Raleigh, rallying support for progressive legislation with limited success. With Republicans holding better than three-fifths majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, Democrats are left to wage campaigns that ultimately are swamped by GOP numbers. Republicans hold 33 of 50 seats in the Senate and 77 in the 120-member House.

"We can do little or nothing because we’re not in the majority or in my case in the Senate, we can’t even stop a veto," Graham said. "We are legislatively in terms of getting anything done, on our own, so it does require us to be the loyal opposition."

They have a full plate to oppose. As Republican lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory cut funding for schools, push repeal of the Racial Justice Act and limit cities’ power, Democrats and black lawmakers are lobbying to mitigate the impact on their constituents.

"That’s one reason why they are the spokespersons for the Democratic Party this session," Coble said.

"The other reason is a lot of these laws disproportionately affect African Americans. The photo ID bill, for example. African Americans are disproportionately among those without a photo ID. Some of the bills early in the session about unemployment insurance or possible expansion of the Medicaid program, those also affect disproportionately African Americans."